College Park — Maryland men’s basketball picked up its fourth victory in five games Wednesday night, defeating Minnesota, 84-73, at Xfinity Center.
Even though Minnesota’s Jamison Battle tied former Terps center Diamond Stone’s Xfinity Center record with 39 points to keep the scrappy Golden Gophers in the game, Maryland junior guard Hakim Hart stole the show.
The Philadelphia native finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and two steals, including 15 points and six rebounds in the second half, as the Terps inched closer to securing a first-round bye in next week’s Big Ten tournament. Maryland (15-15, 7-12 Big Ten), currently in 11th place, must avoid finishing in the bottom four of the conference standings when it closes the regular season Sunday at Michigan State.
Hart’s performance led a balanced scoring effort on senior night. In his final home game, senior guard Eric Ayala totaled 15 points and nine rebounds, while graduate transfer Fatts Russell added 16 points, four assists and three steals. Russell knocked down six consecutive free throws to seal the victory.
With Maryland up by five, Hart scored five consecutive points, including a clutch 3-pointer to give the Terps a 78-68 lead with 1:25 left.
“[Hart] made big time shots for us down the stretch,” interim coach Danny Manning said. “He got to the free-throw line. Defensively, able to guard multiple players. Hakim is somebody that does it all for us.”
Wednesday was meant to be for the seniors, but freshman Julian Reese (St. Frances) proved he is the future, totaling 12 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes. The Terps finished the night shooting 52.5% from the field while outscoring Minnesota 46-16 in the paint.
Despite the late start time, Maryland did a good job keeping the crowd energized. After Minnesota’s Payton Willis (21 points) scored his team’s opening five points, Ayala easily attacked the rim for back-to-back layups before Russell tossed an alley-oop to junior forward Qudus Wahab (10 points, five rebounds) for a two-handed slam to give Maryland a one-point lead.
Maryland had an easy time getting baskets around the rim, outscoring the Golden Gophers 28-6 in the paint during the first half. However, Minnesota (13-15, 4-15 Big Ten) hit six 3-pointers in six minutes, and Willis scored 10 points through the opening eight minutes to give the Golden Gophers a 21-18 lead.
After being Maryland’s primary scoring option the past six games, Russell got his teammates involved Wednesday night. The Rhode Island transfer kicked the ball to graduate student Xavier Green for a 3-pointer, then drove to the rim to draw a pair of defenders before passing to Reese for a dunk to extend Maryland’s lead to 25-21.
“I just wanted to win,” Russell said. “As long as we won, it was going to be a successful senior night.”
With under four minutes remaining in the first, Maryland took its largest lead. Ayala buried a 3-pointer in the corner then made a nice pass to Hart for a layup in transition to give the Terps a 41-33 advantage.
Maryland went into halftime leading 41-37, but Willis and Battle did not quit, combining for 30 points in the first half. Battle scored seven points in the final five minutes to enter the locker room with 20 points.
“He was on fire,” Russell said of Battle, who finished 14-for-31 from the field and 7-for-14 from 3-point range. “He had a hell of a game. When someone is going like that, it’s hard to get them off their rhythm.”
Battle built on his impressive performance in the second half to match Stone’s 39-point performance against Penn State on Dec. 30, 2015. With the Terps up by eight points, Battle converted a contested floater, then knocked down a 3-pointer. The Terps missed three consecutive baskets before Battle delivered a two-handed dunk on a fastbreak, cutting the lead to 47-44 with 14:52 to go.
Tempers flared with 13:38 left when Minnesota’s Sean Sutherlin was called for a flagrant foul after pulling down Hart as he was attempting a layup on a fastbreak. Hart was clearly frustrated with Sutherlin as his teammates restrained him underneath the basket.
That moment sparked a 8-0 run by the Terps, extending their lead to 59-46. Reese was the driving force during that stretch, scoring six consecutive points.
But the Golden Gophers crept back thanks to an 11-3 run. After Willis made his first 3-pointer since the 17-minute mark of the first half, Battle buried a pair of free throws to trim Maryland’s lead to 66-63 with 4:02 left.
When Battle buried a 3-pointer to cut the deficit down to 70-68, Ayala knew his team couldn’t afford to falter late after gaining some momentum heading into the Big Ten tournament. He huddled his teammates together, reminding them about all the close games they’ve lost and how they couldn’t let that happen again.
Maryland were fueled by Ayala’s words, as the Terps outscored the Golden Gophers 14-5 in the final three minutes. Ayala made a big play during that stretch, hitting a 3-pointer with 2:12 left to give the Terps a 73-68 lead.
“The way [Minnesota] was guarding, I knew I was going to be open,” Ayala said. “I was ready two plays before that.”
Ayala never went to prom in high school and he didn’t have the biggest graduation ceremony, so he wanted his senior night at Maryland to be special. As he walked towards the bench with 41 seconds left for his final curtain call inside Xfinity Center, it was everything he ever wanted. But, more importantly to the senior guard, his teammates have even more faith in themselves.
“We are dangerous, man,” Ayala said. “I wouldn’t want to play us in any games in the next few weeks.”
Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 105.7 FM